Mayor's community issues committee explores solutions in McKeesport
Mayor Michael Cherepko's Committee on Community Issues joined residents in McKeesport's Seventh Ward on Wednesday evening to explore solutions to neighborhood problems.
“This committee was born from the Human Relations Commission, and we're starting something different,” the city's fair housing officer Angelia Christina explained to more than 50 residents who gathered at McKeesport Presbyterian Church along Versailles Avenue. “We're here to hear from you. We want you to talk to us, rather than having us talk to you.”
The committee plans to address fair housing issues and community development matters overseen on a national level by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“Every department in this city can be related to fair housing and equal opportunity for every resident of this city, regardless of race, sex or any other demographic,” Christina said.
The committee will conduct monthly panel discussions led by residents' questions in each of the city's wards. In the Seventh Ward, attendees focused on blight and drug activity.
That neighborhood, where Twin Rivers Primary/Intermediate School recently opened, is being revitalized as the city's Cultural and Educational Sector. It's also home to Carnegie Library of McKeesport and McKeesport Little Theater.
A $200,000 Community Infrastructure and Tourism grant will be applied to demolishing nearly 30 homes to make way for new construction and parklets.
Resident Percy L. Meriwether Jr. shared with city officials his ideas on a plan for residential restoration to replace demolition when possible.
“A lot of people think that tearing down homes is the best choice, but some of these houses can be saved,” Meriwether said. “While all these blighted homes look bad, empty lots don't look much better.”
Meriwether, who has flipped homes in the past, said one way is to offer them to investors who will put up their own money and reinvest in city neighborhoods.
Cherepko said the city's Vacant Property Recovery Program, which primarily deals with transferring vacant lots to adjacent property owners, is in the process of passing houses on to new owners.
In addition to the eyesore of dilapidated structures, residents asked what can be done about garbage that rolls along their neighborhood streets like tumbleweeds. With some neighbors not taking care of their properties and others dropping trash as they walk by, residents said it's frustrating to live in a neighborhood that simply isn't clean.
Cherepko invited residents to take part in a community-wide cleanup on Saturday, in which neighborhood task forces and other resident groups will be out clearing debris from parks, yards and sidewalks.
“Clean up what you can,” the mayor said. “Put it in bags at the curb, and we will be around to pick it all up on Monday.”
Residents took issue with drug activity that they said is taking place on the streets, in homes and in neighborhood shops.
“You need to make yourselves aware of this if you want this community to feel safe,” said one woman, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic. “Drug activity alone makes the area unsafe. It's horrible, and I'm alarmed that you don't know more about it.”
McKeesport police have worked with Allegheny County and state agencies to tackle the city's — and the region's — drug problem. While there have been numerous arrests, the problem still exists.
“Our judicial system is flawed,” Cherepko said. “If you nail people for drugs, they get slapped on the wrist and basically released.”
Cherepko thanked residents for pointing authorities to specific areas so that further investigations can lead to solid cases and eventually arrests. Residents said they participated in Wednesday's meeting in order to build a better community.
“I see a lot of familiar faces in this audience — a lot of people who have attended similar community meetings,” Cherepko said. “Once we identify problems, we can talk about solutions. That's what will make these meetings productive. There is a lot of work to do in this city, but the best resource we have is sitting right here in this room.”
Cherepko encouraged residents to embrace the “Working Together for a Better McKeesport” motto.
Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or firstname.lastname@example.org.